We know the public realm is in crisis; we’ve known this for some time. We know that public institutions have fewer resources and less capacity. We know, too, that these institutions have never been as transparent, benevolent or universally life-sustaining as they might have wanted to be, or wanted to appear to be. We know from the years of postcolonial scholarship and activism behind us and in front of us that our thinking about the civil society must be inflected by analysis of the imperialist ideological underpinnings of ‘civilisation’. We know that the theatre is intimately caught up with the public, as representation, as pedagogical tool or disciplinary mechanism, in liberal idealisations of the ancient Greek theatre as an organiser of democracy, in neoliberal instrumentalisation of the theatre as an agent of the creative economy.
We know that we aren’t sure who ‘we’ are – if we are citizens of a public-in-crisis, if our citizenship is durable or precarious, if it implicates us. We know that citizenship affords some of us certain rights, and that it is often hard-won. We know that it is particularly tested at national borders. We know that citizenship is insufficient as an accounting of all of ‘us’.
This issue of Interventions has arisen from questions about ‘the civic’, which might be understood as a space of interaction between citizens and the public. With the understanding that the civic is a contested space (and that figuring it as ‘a space’ might itself be contested), the following collection might be thought of as a series of provisional reports. These reports include a series of ‘Free Disassociations’, written by Simon Bayly with Johanna Linsley, which draw on philosophical frameworks, and texts by Samuel Delany and Claudia Rankine to probe the status of ‘contact’, relation and non-relation, and the limits of writing in approaching all of these.
An interview with Jen Harvie examines her experiences as a specialist advisor to a committee of the House of Lords, an institution with a particularly complex relationship to the public, as an unelected body with roots in a feudal system, which nevertheless operates as a modern civic bureaucracy. Harvie reflects on the possibilities and limitations of participating in such an institution, grounding her reflection in the concrete example of an inquiry by a committee into developing skills for theatre in the UK.
Elaheh Hatami and Sepideh Zarrin Ghalam take up the issue of the civic in their analysis of two instances of women’s bodies performing in public space. Their examples are of women dancing in post-revolution Iran, though they differ significantly. In one, an anonymous woman dances with abandon to a pop song on the Tehran subway; in another, a progressive contemporary dancer is photographed in front of a major architectural symbol of modern Iran. In both pieces, Hatami and Ghalam argue, the performers use civic space and gesture to challenge a state regime that regulates and controls women’s bodies.
Finally, a multi-authored piece presents multiple and varied perspectives on the civic institution of “settlement”, the process of acquiring Indefinite Leave to Remain in the United Kingdom. Broderick Chow uses the life, career, and philosophy of the Edwardian wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt, an Eastern European migrant who became a French citizen and British subject, to reflect on the bureaucratic “violence” of the immigration and settlement process. Chow has also curated a series of reflections from friends and colleagues who have gone through the same process: Melissa Blanco Borelli, Bryce Lease, Royona Mitra, Grant Peterson, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, and Joshua Abrams. The responses reflect on the relative (but precarious) privilege held by international academics in contrast to other migrants, and are offered in solidarity with all bodies who cross borders, with all those whose citizenship is questioned, tested, threatened, stripped away, and revoked.
– Broderick D.V. Chow and Johanna Linsley